It is approaching 60 years since Frances Shea married gangster Reggie Kray at St James The Great Church in Bethnal Green – the same spot her funeral was held just two years after the wedding.
There has been much speculation about her death, from rumours that gay brother, Ronnie, had her murdered because he was jealous of the marriage, to Kray’s mum, Violet, and their aunt, Rose, being the ones who had her killed.
But the inquest revealed the sad truth that Frances took her own life from an overdose aged 23. Her infamous and heartbroken husband, who slept with a loaded gun and flick-knife under his pillow, went on to murder Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie just four months later.
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And while Reggie eventually wed a second wife while banged up behind bars, Frances’s legacy is more ambiguous. And with this in mind, we take a closer look at what her life looked like before it ended up so tragically.
Frances, who would be 80 if she was alive today, was of Irish descent but was born in Hoxton, London, to a woodworker father and a seamstress mother.
She had links to the Kray mobsters from an early age because her brother, Frank, was their childhood pal and driver. Meanwhile, her dad also ran the gambling at The Regency Club in Stoke Newington, a popular location for the fearsome twins.
And the Shoreditch local was 16 when she was first introduced to Reggie – who she was smitten over. Frances reportedly worked as a clerk on the Strand when she began dating the gangster who treated her to lavish trips abroad.
Reggie first asked for her hand in 1961 when he was 27 and she was 18 but she considered herself too young for such a life-long commitment.
But four years later, after some time apart, Reggie again proposed to her – and this time she said yes.
They tied the knot on April 19, 1965, and although the glamorous bride flashed her dashing smile for photos on her big day, they never actually consummated the marriage.
The newlyweds honeymooned in Athens and one picture showed them unsmiling in front of the Acropolis – but after returning to London their relationship became strained.
Writing in her diary, later sold at auction, she penned: “(He) came back night time. By the side of bed gun, sword, knife, chopper, flick-knife. He used to sleep with flick-knife under his pillow.”
And in another passage, she described how isolated she felt while living in their flat in Marble Arch and how the underworld siblings acted aggressively towards her.
She wrote: “(Reggie) came in late every night drunk. Got up every morning two minutes to dress, left me all day and came back late at night drunk.
“Went to his house – his brother walked in bedroom in underwear, swore at me. Went back to flat Marble Arch, came back night time.”
Frances was also battling her own mental health problems and she attempted to take her own life on several occasions. And her diaries also described how she was admitted to hospital “for a rest” during her marriage.
Documenting her struggles, she said: “Him and his friend took me to the hospital, he was swearing and shouting at me in the car.”
“Couldn’t stand it anymore – left him. When I was packing my suitcases to leave he told me he would bring up fictitious characters again.”
Frances tried to get the marriage annulled because they never consummate it but just two years after her wedding day she took her own life after taking an overdose on June 7, 1967.
Reggie reportedly sank into his own depression after her death and he started consuming more and more booze before he murdered Jack McVitie.
Auctioneer Jane Anderson, of Gorringe's of Lewes, later said: “They had an unhappy marriage and it seems someone told Frances to write down incidents while she was trying to divorce Reggie.
“It seems like life with him was impossible. She spent most of her time alone in their flat and when he was there he was often drunk and he slept in a bed with various weaponry.
“When he was in prison it was safe for her to have a relationship with him. But on the outside, she was way out of her depth and was very frightened of Reggie, as anyone would have been.”
Frances’s remaining family
The above insight into Frances’ failed marriage, which only reportedly lasted eight months before she called it quits, paints her as a timid young woman who was miserable while married to Reggie.
However, her beloved niece, also called Frances, refutes this portrayal of her aunt, who she described as a “wild-child” who is nothing like how she was perceived in the film Legend starring Tom Hardy.
Giving an alternative perspective, Frances, who was the daughter of Frank and was four when her aunt died, told The Mirror: “I want people to laugh when they remember Franie, not cry.
“She was a vivacious, curvy woman, not the scrawny, scruffy girl we saw on that screen. She was a real wild child. When she first jumped off the plane in Spain the first thing she asked for was hashish. That was our Franie.”
Frances said she saw her aunt the night before she died and said she was sitting flicking through holiday brochures with Reggie before she kissed them both goodnight.
She never saw either again and despite her tablet overdose and the later emergence of her ominously toned diaries, Frances insisted that Reggie’s first wife was content and often outshined the likes of Barbara Windsor and Judy Garland at the Kray's nightclub.
“I read Franie’s diaries and I know that she was happy,” she said. “They had their blips and towards the end she wasn’t well. That came through in some of the things she wrote. But she loved Reg.
“One day I was in bed with Franie and she was reading from my book of Grimm’s fairy tales. Reggie came to the door and she threw the book across the room and shouted ‘Get out you b******’.
“He ducked out of the door and left. He didn’t come in and confront her. Franie laughed, retrieved the book and we carried on reading. I never saw him as a threat. I’ve tried to cling to every happy memory I have of them.”
Reggie served 33 years for murdering McVitie and he died of cancer in 2000. He is now buried at Chingford Cemetery, the same resting ground as his first wife Frances Shea.
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